Andy DiDomenico is a nineteen year educational veteran who currently teaches history and leadership at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, NY and coaches sprint football at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His mission is to help foster inclusive school culture by building caring relationships and establishing trusting communities in and out of the classroom. He, his wife Anne and their daughter Mary are proud to be a part of the CharacterStrong family!
We talk with Andy about why is it important that we make time daily for character development, and he shares ways that he has embedded a focus on character and building relationships into what he does at his schools.
“...fundamentally as a teacher, you could have the wealth of the world's knowledge, and if you don't have a relationship with the students or the players or your students and your clubs and whatever, it doesn't matter. They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. So I think without the relationships, none of the rest of it really matters.”
— Andy DiDomenico
- John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Andy DiDomenico. Andy is a 19-year educational veteran who currently teaches history and leadership at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, New York, and coaches sprint football at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His mission is to help foster inclusive school culture by building caring relationships and establishing trusting communities in and out of the classroom. He and his wife, Anne, and their daughter, Mary, are proud to be a part of the CharacterStrong family. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Andy DiDomenico. All right, I am so excited to welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast, my friend, Andy DiDomenico. How are you doing today? I know you just finished a class.
- Andy: I'm doing great, John. It's great to hear your voice and I'm really excited to have a conversation with you
- John: Right on, man. Well, first of all, tell people where you're at right now. Where do you teach? Where's your work?
- Andy: So I am a history and leadership teacher at Tappan Zee High School in suburban New York. I also coach something called sprint football. It's lightweight football at the United States Military Academy at West point... And just trying to infuse character in any way I can.
- John: That's awesome, man. Well, we're big believers on the podcast of cut the fluff, get right to the stuff. So let's talk, if the theme was this, intentionality making time daily for character development, let's just start there. In your experience being in the work, as a teacher, as a coach, a husband, now father, why is it important that we make time daily for character development?
- Andy: Well, I mean, fundamentally as a teacher, you could have the wealth of the world's knowledge, and if you don't have a relationship with the students or the players or your students and your clubs and whatever, it doesn't matter. They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. So I think without the relationships, none of the rest of it really matters.
- John: Yeah. So true. And yet how we teach that explicitly, right? Intentionally. A lot of times what I find working with educators across the country, is it's not that we don't want to do it... A lot of times it's how do we do it? And how do we do it more effectively? And so I want to come back to that in a roundabout way in a moment, but to stay on that topic, obviously, of character and to lead into it, you once did, what I'm putting in quotes was a "character pilgrimage," right? So to speak. Tell me about it and what you learned on that journey. And then I'm going to bring us back to that question.
- Andy: Well, I mean you are the Mecca for me on that, to give you the credit. I came across some of your material on Twitter. I'm in New York, you're 3000 miles away... But your discussions of love and agape love, and character development and holistic teaching the whole child just resonated with me. And I looked at the material and I said, "I have to have to go out there. I have to go out to Sumner. I have to go out to Washington State." I convinced my wife this is something that we need to do. And she said, "All right, let's go. We're going to go to a Mariners game, we're going to go whale watching. And then we're going to top it off with a day with John Norlin and learning the CharacterStrong, a pre-CharacterStrong curriculum."
- John: Yeah man, that's awesome. Well, the only thing that was wrong with what you said there was that you had to bring up the Mariners, who now is what, the only team to not make the World Series. Is that the most recent stat that came out?
- Andy: Oh, goodness.
- John: It just pains me, man. Oh, no. Well, real quick, what is one thing that you took away from that journey? Because you hit multiple trainings, didn't you, on that journey or character pilgrimage, so to speak. What was some of the things that you pulled out of that journey?
- Andy: I mean, the most important thing I took away from it was the idea that we need to be intentional about how we infuse character and being intentional with our time. In the educational business, we are run ragged with state and federal mandates. And it'll make you pull your hair out as an educator. But if we make the time building those relationships in intentional ways, everything else will take care of itself.
- John: Yeah. And yet for many, because it's not a lot of times that immediate gratification, just like we try to teach our students, is that delayed gratification, I think, in so many times in cases, that for educators is it's delayed gratification, and that we put in the time and the results come later... But you don't always get to see it immediately. Sometimes you do. But you got to believe that because we're wired for connection, because we are built to be relational, that this is the foundation of work. And by investing all in, not just one or two people, but as an entire staff, we will see those results that you're referencing. So let's then dig in... What are some ways that you've made time for character development and or unique ways that you've actually embedded it into what you do?
- Andy: Well, I mean, for me it all started in athletics and team building and culture building, and infusing our core values into our athletic programs. So for us, it was every Tuesday, for 45 minutes to an hour, we weren't on the practice field. We were in the classroom and we were teaching and modeling and providing actions steps, real world action steps, to embody our core values on the field, our core values in school and in the community, our core values at home. And then as the week progressed, we would take time at the beginning of practice or at the end of practice to elicit what we called moments of greatness.
“...we need to be intentional about how we infuse character and being intentional with our time. In the educational business, we are run ragged with state and federal mandates. And it'll make you pull your hair out as an educator. But if we make the time building those relationships in intentional ways, everything else will take care of itself.”
— Andy DiDomenico
- Andy: So I would elicit from our players, I would just say, "Hey, who's got a moment of greatness for me?" And a kid would raise his hand and say, "I helped my neighbor with our groceries yesterday," or "I tutored my brother in seventh grade math." And then we would recognize that and reward it. And if anybody's familiar with football, putting stickers on their helmets is always a nice thing that the kids like to have. We started putting stickers on our helmets, not for on-field accomplishments, but for moments of greatness off the field, in the school, in the community.
- John: Love it.
- Andy: And then that built into the classroom after sitting down with you and getting to know so many other unbelievable educators around the country. I started taking time out every week, at the beginning of every week. What I do, is we reconnect. We greet everybody in the morning, every day, and we just check in on a Monday or the first day of the week, "How was your weekend? What'd you do?" Simple things that they can connect to one another, then we take an ice breaker question. You guys provide a ton there at CharacterStrong. You can find them on the internet at the click of a button. And then finish every Monday morning with a compliment creation that you guys have provided for us, those compliment Madlibs... And our kids, first you got to crawl, then you got to walk, then you got to run, and the compliment creations provide that crawling and as they get more comfortable, they start to give their own compliments and the relationships, hopefully, take off from there.
- John: Yeah, man. And I think that one of the things I'd love is, we're kind of even starting to wrap up the shorter podcast, but it's like you're in that unique, and what I mean by unique is, for many years, elementary schools have put a focus on social and emotional learning and/or character development. Sometimes we see it in a roundabout way, at the middle level... What I mean by that too is, obviously, we're always in some way or another focusing on this, but the explicit focusing on it, right? The teaching of a social emotional learning or character development curricula school wide... Elementary has been doing for years.
- Andy: Sure.
- John: There's some times that happens in the middle, and many times, it's just non-existent at the high school level. It's either if the teacher is doing it on their own in an intentional way or not. And so when we talk to high school educators across the country, what have been some of the keys to success to actually getting it to work with high school students, in your experience? I was there for a decade, right? I know that it is not only doable, they're hungry for it. But I think that people need to hear from people who are in the work. You've literally just finished teaching a class, right? What have been some of the keys to success with high school students?
- Andy: Well, I think with high school, and you and I have talked about this, is they don't want to role play, right? They want to go out and get their hands dirty and do the work. So getting involved with the character dares, pushing the students outside their comfort zone to go take action, right? But the class that I teach, it's subtitled Character in Action. So, they want to go out and, and do that. Funnily enough, I adapted one of your staff character dares for my students yesterday for a humility dare. We took the, what is one thing I can do in our relationship to be better.
- Andy: And I had our students text a family member, a brother, a sister, a friend, and had them elicit that feedback. And there was some real world feedback for them to take in, to kind of swallow, and be humbled by, and then commit to being better... And not guaranteeing that they were going to being able to meet that person's needs, but they were going to try to be better in that relationship. And like you said, I just finished the class and there were some red faces. There were some humbled hearts, but I think it will be useful. So it's that idea of getting your hands dirty, getting involved in service projects, getting involved in the community. Our kids are really, really hungering for that.
- John: Yep. Yep. And I think that is a perfect place for today to end on because so many times, I'll hear things like, "Kids these days," and it's like, "Timeout for a minute." I think that our youth today are as hungry as ever before for being a part of meaningful work, being a part of something bigger than them, wanting to actually make a difference. But so many times, it's that we're not doing what you say, we're not pushing them to action. We're not really challenging them to make an authentic difference by engaging in their own relationships, something that is immediately relevant to them right now, to then make that difference first in their own relationships. Right? And then branching out from there and their close-knit community and then beyond. And so thank you for being in the work. Thank you for serving the work. Thank you for being such a champion. To leave us today, how can people connect with you?
- Andy: I'm on the Twitterverse, as I like to say. It's @ADDomenico1. I'm not going to spell that for you, but I'm out there.
- John: Let me try. It's D-I-D-O-M-E-N-I-C-O. Is that correct?
- Andy: That is correct.
- John: Yes. Okay. I got it.
- Andy: Yeah. And that's where I love to interact with so many of the unbelievably caring educators around the country. I'm not very active this time of year during football season, but come November, December, I'll be bouncing back.
- John: That's right. Look you up. And when you do tweet, it's really good, man. No, I love it. Awesome, buddy. Well, I sure appreciate you. Look forward to the next time our paths cross, and when I'm out on the East coast, I'll send you a note heading your way, but thank you and look forward to talking again soon.
- Andy: Thank you. Thank you to the whole crew over at CharacterStrong for everything you guys do for all of us educators. It's really inspirational.
- John: Thank you. Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening and make it a great day.
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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.